Burton sales figures lift high-street gloom

Burton provided some cheer for Britain's retail scene yesterday with a Christmas trading statement showing sales had been stronger than doomsayers had been forecasting. The figures were helped by a late surge in consumer spending in the final shopping days.

Burton shrugged off pre-Christmas concerns about weak trading and the impact of higher interest rates with figures showing that sales in the 18 weeks to 3 January were 7.6 per cent ahead of the previous year.

The company, which plans to de-merge its Debenhams division later this month, said sales had started more slowly than expected but improved as Christmas approached. It dismissed suggestions that some of its shops had been panicked into starting their winter sales early saying its discounts had started on Boxing Day "as planned."

There was also relief in the City that in spite of the late surge in spending, Burton's margin was in line with last year's.

Debenhams' sales, including newly opened space, were up by 6.9 per cent. The multiples business, which includes Dorothy Perkins and Principles, showed an 8.6 per cent gain. Contrary to expectations, womenswear performed more strongly than menswear. Commenting on the figures, Nick Bubb at Societe Generale Strauss Turnbull said: "It shows that there was a late pick-up in trading but whether that is the same for everyone remains to be seen."

Clinton Cards, the specialist greeting cards retailer, provided a further boost to sentiment yesterday with a like-for-like sales increase of 11.8 per cent in the five weeks to 28 December. Other retail shares edged higher on Burton's news. Ian MacDougall, analyst at Williams de Broe, said: "It has been greeted by the market with a degree of relief given the blood- curdling rumours before Christmas."

Burton's figures were in line with the 8 per cent increase reported by the John Lewis Partnership's department stores for the four weeks to 24 December. John Lewis also said it had experienced a late run in trading. Burton's shares closed 3p higher at 143p.

- Nigel Cope

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